While mingling at the local dog park, I met a young lady who reminded me of what makes teachers great. She is a second year teacher who is working with some of our most at-risk students at a school dedicated to children with significant behavioral and academic challenges. The next step for these kids is either reintegration or movement to a high security detention-like facility. They’re 7-years-old! As a retired principal who led several schools with integrated special-education classes for similar high-needs children, I was very interested in her story.
She has five students who are officially in Grade 2. Some can read a bit and some can’t. Some have supportive parents, some don’t. Some have impulse control, some don’t. Some are angry, some are sad. With this young teacher, all have hope.
Last year, she worked in a similar school with very different results. She said her principal expected her to follow all of the rules and not step out of the box in order to meet the needs of her students. The deep caring she had for them and their families was undervalued with the main focus being on curriculum delivery and test scores, she told me.
This year, she is in a learning environment in which students and teachers thrive. The principal sees the fantastic results she is getting with her students and is even moving a very high-needs student into her class from the other Grade 2 class. She is welcoming him and refusing to do a trade in order to make the class numbers even. She couldn’t give up one of her beloved students. This is great teaching.
Great teachers can jump.
They jump through hoops.
There is no end to the rules and regulations in education — especially in special education. Data collection and paperwork can be overwhelming. Great teachers want to spend time working with students, parents and other supporting social agencies — not completing documentation to prove they have done it. Great teachers and principals figure out how to complete requirements while maintaining the absolutely necessary focus on the short-term and long-term needs of their children.
Great teachers keep ongoing data to motivate their students and develop personalized programming. This readily-available useful data can contribute to accountability paperwork. There is no time to collect data for something that will have no impact on individual student learning.
Many great teachers are not liked by their colleagues. They are resented for their successes and for the inordinate amount of passion they have for their job. They are even perceived to be making the rest of the staff look bad. Great teachers persevere and bring others along with them.
They jump over obstacles.
Even if there are enough resources allocated for special-education students, teachers and principals must deal with ensuring that the impact of those resources is maximized. Sometimes staffing formulas must be stretched, internal adjustments made and a shared commitment to making a difference must develop. It’s almost impossible for a great teacher to make a difference without a support team.
Great teachers know how to play the system. Once a teacher has a reputation for doing the right thing for kids, social agencies will respond. Teachers who simply throw up their hands and say I can’t do anything with this child will get a different response.
Great teachers can turn parents into partners in the education of their children. Many at-risk students have at-risk parents as well. These parents often have very little trust in “the system.” Great teachers turn obstacles into supports. It takes time to build trusting relationships, but it’s worth it.
They jump high.
Great teachers expect to make a significant difference in the lives of their students and reach high to be successful with each and every student in their care. They hold high expectations for every child — personalized expectations — not the one-size fits all expectations that lend themselves to standardized testing to produce accountability data.
Great teachers share their knowledge with their colleagues and work to build a team. Even the most junior teacher leads when they have confidence and are supported.
“Jumping” should be part of our teacher and principal development programs. If more educators felt supported in thinking, stepping and even jumping outside of the box, real change would begin.
Carol Hunter is an award-winning, retired elementary-school principal and author of Real Leadership Real Change. She is president of Impact Leadership, a consulting company focused on bringing real change to public education.
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